Tuesday, May 24, 2016

SFMOMA – Welcoming an old friend back to the City

Welcome back / The new-look SFMOMA has grown from five to 10 stories.

Last Thursday evening, my wife and I welcomed an old friend back to San Francisco. The San Francisco Museum of Modern ART (SFMOMA) reopened earlier this month after being closed for the past three years while undergoing a massive – and challenging – expansion project by Oslo and New York design firm Snøhetta. The new-look SFMOMA has grown from five to 10 stories. Dropping in on the newly transformed museum after work for a short visit before heading out for dinner and shopping, we delighted in seeing some favorite artworks and architectural features – including some of the gems from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, considered to be one of the world's greatest.

The largest living wall in the U.S. greets visitors to SFMOMA.
From first glimpse, there's much to like about the new look and space of SFMOMA, including new galleries, expanded exhibition space, better lighting, greater access, art-filled public spaces, six terraces and sculptural staircases, which offer unique views out to the city.

As visitors step outside onto the main terrace, they are greeted by a giant living wall designed by Habitat Horticulture. It is part art, part landscape and it's the nation's largest public green wall of native plants.

Constellation  (1949) / From Alexander Calder: Motion Lab
We delighted in seeing the Alexander Calder: Motion Lab, which highlights Calder's restless innovation in bringing actual movement into art. We viewed About Time: Photography in a Moment of Change, a thematic exhibition which investigates how photography has profoundly reflected, inflected and transformed our perception of time through its 180-year history. We also saw Model Behavior, Snøhetta's initial sketches and models for the expanded SFMOMA building, located in a challenging and prominent urban site on Third Street, just south of Market Street.

A swarm of chaotic energy /
Studying Antony Gormley's "Quantum Cloud VIII"
Finally, upon ascending to Floor 5, we admired British Sculptors, in which more than forty years of diverse sculpture by artists who were born or reside in Great Britain was displayed.

My favorite was Antony Gormley's "Quantum Cloud VIII," a 1999 steel sculpture that was acquired by the Fisher Family in 2000. According to the sculptor, "Quantum Cloud VIII conceives of the body as a swarm of chaotic energy. A human figure seems to alternately materialize from and disintegrate into the cloud of metal bars."

Created between 1999 and 2009, Gormley's Quantum Cloud series reflects on "how the subatomic particles and energy that make up our bodies are integrated with those that compose the universe around us."

Alexander Calder /
Big Crinkly (1969)
There is much to see and enjoy in the 170,000 square feet of exhibition space, and as members, we look forward to going back often to see some of the things we missed during our initial visit. Some of the current exhibits include:

Paul Klee in Color, which includes paintings and watercolors by the Swiss-born modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940) that explore "his intuitive and theoretical approaches to color."

German Art after 1960, which is an overview of leading German artists such as Gerhard Richter, Georg Baslitz, Anselm Kiefer, and Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Typeface to Interface, which features graphic design from the Collection, "a trajectory of iconic type and the evolution of digital tools marking the rapid transformation of graphic design over the past sixty years."

San Francisco / A city that loves art and open spaces.
In its 81-year history, SFMOMA has established itself as a premier showcase for modern art – think Calder, Close, Kahlo, Kelly, Pollack and Warhol. One things certain: There's definitely a new a positive dedication to openness as the museum begins a new dialogue with San Francisco, a city that loves its art.

To read more about what art critics are saying about the new SFMOMA design:

Photos: All photos by Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I cannot live without books, either

More than 200 years ago, President Thomas Jefferson once said, "I cannot live without books." As one of our country's Founding Fathers, Jefferson was onto something – and today, I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

While I have a nice living room display and collection of books, it's become increasingly challenging to find and make good time to read books on a regular basis. Mind you, I enjoy reading – even if I have a reading list I will never finish. Every day, I spend time reading The New York Times and I keep up with the newsfeed of my Facebook. Still, I would like to spend more time with books. Doesn't matter if they are hardcover or softcover. A good book is something that's hard to put down.

Fortunately, each time I go to the gym – usually five times a week – I bring a book with me and spend 30 minutes riding a stationary bike with an open book to take my mind off of exercising. After all, it's been said, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body."

While reading a book is like taking a good journey, three books which I have recently read and recommend to everyone are:

Indentured / Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss
The rebellion against
the college sports cartel.
• Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss. The authors (one a columnist, the other a contributing writer for The New York Times) have long recognized that there is a widespread corruption that plagues big-time college sports. Indentured grew out of a controversial New York Times column Nocera wrote four years ago in which he asked pointblank: "How can the NCAA blithely wreck careers without regard to due process or common fairness? How can it act so ruthlessly to enforce rules that are so petty? Why won't anybody stand up to these outrageous violations of American values and American justice?"

As millions of high school seniors each year accept athletic scholarships to American colleges and universities to chase their dream of fame and fortune as "student-athletes," sports fans have finally come to realize that athletes in the two biggest college sports, men's basketball and football, "are little more than indentured servants." Their best interests are not being served by the NCAA, notes Nocera and Strauss.

They write: "For about 5 percent of top-division players, college ends with a golden ticket to the NFL or the NBA. But what about the overwhelming majority who never turn pro? They don't earn a dime from the estimated $13 billion generated annually by college sports – an ocean of cash that enriches schools, conferences, coaches, TV networks, and apparel companies ... everyone except those who give their blood and sweat to entertain the fans."

Indentured is a must read book for college sports fans – a real eye-opening drama and a good page-turner – and chapter after compelling chapter, it tells a story of a group of "rebels" – former athletes, coaches, marketers – who decided to fight for justice against the hypocrisy of the NCAA.

Saving Capitalism /
For the Many, Not the Few
By Robert B. Reich.
• Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert B. Reich is a book that's an intersection of economics and politics, "a myth-shattering breakdown of how the economic system that helped make America so strong is now failing us, and what it will take to fix it." Reich has served in three national administrations – he was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton – and currently is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economics. So, he knows his subject matter very well.

In Saving Capitalism, Reich "reveals how power and influence have created a new American oligarchy, a shrinking middle class, and the greatest income inequality and wealth disparity in eighty years." His writing throughout the book is both filled with passion and it's precisely argued.

Reich recalls how in the post-World II outlook, America created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. "Then, the economy generated hope. Hard work paid off, education was the means toward upward mobility, those who contributed most reaped the largest rewards, economic growth created more and better jobs, the living standards of most people improved throughout their working lives, our children would enjoy better lives than we had, and the rules of the game were basically fair," writes Reich.

He continues: "But today all these assumptions ring hollow. Confidence in the economic system has declined sharply. The apparent arbitrariness and unfairness of the economy have undermined the public's faith in its basic tenets. Cynicism abounds. To many, the economic and political systems seem rigged, the deck stacked in favor of those at the top. The threat to capitalism is no longer communism or fascism but a steady undermining of the trust modern societies need for grown and stability."

Robert Reich is one of the best economists in modern American history, according to U.S. Senator and Democratic Presidential contender Bernie Sanders. "He understands that there is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This book is a road map on how to rebuild the middle class and fix a rigged economy that has been propped up by a corrupt campaign finance system," said Sanders.

I'd Know That Voice Anywhere /
By Frank Deford
A collection of his NPR commentaries.
• I'd Know That Voice Anywhere by Frank Deford. The longtime NPR Morning Edition commentator, who is also senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated and a senior correspondent on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, is one of America's most beloved sport commentators. Since 1980, Deford has recorded over 2,000 commentaries for NPR – "the serious, the foolish, the noble, the idiosyncratic; this game, that athletic." His latest book – his nineteenth – is a collection of literary sports commentaries that brings together a charming, insightful and wide-ranging look at athletes and the sports world.

"Being a writer, I never paid much attention to my voice," writes Deford in the forward for I'd Know That Voice Anywhere. "Since, when it came to interviewing, I was a primitive pen-and-notebook reporter, I rarely even heard myself speak on a tape recorder. ... Then, in the autumn of 1979, through impossibly serendipitous circumstances, National Public Radio approached me about doing a weekly sports commentary, and suddenly I had to direct that run-of-the-mill voice of mine into a microphone. But then, to my utter delight (shock and awe?), I soon found myself being complimented, advised that I possessed a distinct "radio voice." Where did you get that? people asked me, as if you could pick it out at an appliance store."

In I'd Know That Voice Anywhere, Deford muses everything sport from our continued love affair for Joe DiMaggio to the similarities between Babe Ruth and Winnie the Pooh. He rhapsodizes about how football reminds him of Venice, and even offers Super Bowl coverage in the form of a Shakespearian sonnet. Deford waxes poetically about the most popular sports of yesteryear such as boxing, golf and horse racing, and compares the Olympics to an independent movie comprised of foreign actors you've never heard of.

"Sports is, on the one level, mere amusement, but it is found in every culture," notes Deford, "and while it's not an absolute necessity for us, as eating and drinking and procreation are – sports is a card-carrying part of the human condition, in the same league with religion and drama and art and music. You can ignore sports, just as  you might choose not to care about other of those optional devotions, but sports does have a hefty place in our world, and I'm pleased to have been its troubadour on NPR. To voice sports may well be the next best thing to being out on the field itself, playing. And there's no risk of concussions."

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"My name is Sadiq Khan and I'm the mayor of London!"

Sadiq Khan / I'm a Londoner, I'm European, I'm British, I'm English,
I'm of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband."

London began the week with a new mayor. Meet Sadiq Khan. Not only is he the first Muslim to lead Britain's capital city, he's the first Muslim head of a major European capital.

"I'm a Londoner, I'm European, I'm British, I'm English, I'm of Islamic faith, of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, a dad, a husband," said the newly elected, 45-year-old Khan in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Khan, a Labour Party leader, succeeds two-term Conservative Boris Johnson, who was London's mayor since 2008. He was officially sworn in as London's new mayor last Saturday during a ceremony at Southwark Cathedral, and was immediately greeted with cheers and applause.

Sadiq Khan / The first Muslim leader of an important
western city.
Born in Tooting, South London, Khan is the fifth of eight children whose parents immigrated from Pakistan. He grew up in the 1970s in a public-housing project – known as a council estate – where his father drove a London city bus and his mother was a seamstress.

"My parents came here because they saw London as a beacon," Khan told The Guardian. "A place where they could create a better life."

Following a bitter Conservative campaign of personal attacks that was dominated by anxieties over his religion and ethnicity, Khan won a striking and historic victory over Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith, gaining a broad acceptance from the London electorate who supported him with 44 percent of first preference votes (56.8 percent of the vote overall) in a crowded field. His election brushed aside attempts by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's government to link Khan to the threat of Islamist extremism and, perhaps, it signaled "a broad acceptance by voters of London's racial and religious diversity just months after jihadi terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris," wrote the Financial Times of London.

"Sadiq Khan's election as mayor of the British capital – making him the first Muslim leader of an important western city – is a historic moment that will be scrutinized around the world, particularly in other European cities struggling to integrate Muslim communities," wrote the Financial Times. "The victory of the Labour party candidate reaffirms London's multicultural image at a time of rising populist fervor in Europe and the U.S."

Khan has said he hoped that Donald J. Trump – the presumptive Republican Party presidential candidate who has called for barring Muslims from entering the U.S. – "loses badly."

As mayor of London, Khan will have power over transport, housing, air quality and policing. He's promised to make 50 percent of new homes affordable. He takes charge of one of the world's great cities, "a vibrant metropolis where every tongue is heard," wrote The New York Times. "In his victory, a triumph over the slurs that tried to tie him to Islamist extremism, Khan stood up for openness against isolationism, integration against confrontation, opportunity for all against racism and misogyny. He was the anti-Trump."

Khan, married and the father of two daughters, comes to his new leadership post following a career as a human rights lawyer. He was a Labour councillor in Tory-held Wandsworth for 12 years. He entered Parliament in 2005 and in 2010 his orchestrated Ed Miliband's winning Labour leadership campaign. He ran Labour's London campaign in the 2015 general election.

Sadiq Khan / "Proud that London has today chosen
hope over fear and unity over division."
As an observant Muslim, Khan seems well placed to tackle extremism in a city known for its tolerance and respect of each other. Although Britain has not sustained a major terrorist attack since 2005, it's worth noting that unlike France, Britain's Muslim population is well integrated, and one in eight Londoners identify as Muslim. During the campaign, Khan openly proclaimed his Muslim faith and declared that he was "the British Muslim who will take the fight to the extremists."

Still, Khan's election as mayor comes at a time when Europe is struggling with an increase in Islamaphobia, "riven by debates about the flood of Syrian migrants and on edge over religious, ethnic and cultural disputes," wrote The New York Times.


During Khan's acceptance speech, he noted that London's mayoral election "was not without controversy," but said he was "proud that London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division."

He added: "I hope that we will never be offered such a stark choice again. Fear does not make us safer, it only makes us weaker and the politics of fear is simply not welcome in our city."

Photos: Cover photo: Courtesy of Sadiq Khan Facebook page. Others: Courtesy of Google Images. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Independent bookstores: A glimpse into the soul of a city

Contributing to the cultural fabric / Powell's City of Books, Portland, Ore.

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that a bookstore is "one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking."

Thank goodness for bookstores. Thank goodness we are still thinking, too.

Visiting independent bookstores are always a treat because they offer something unique. Whenever I travel, I try to seek them out. They offer a glimpse into the soul of a city and a sense of a pretty cool place to buy a book.

Despite the shuddering of nationwide chain Borders a few years ago and the bland sameness of Barnes & Noble stores throughout the U.S, we can be grateful for the colorfulness of independent bookstores across the country. In cities such as Portland, Ore., independent bookstores like Powell's City of Books – which covers an entire city block and offers maps for its customers – not only are thriving, they contribute to a city's cultural fabric.

READ / Window display outside of
Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle.
A neon READ sign in a window display greets customers as they walk by Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. It's a sign I never tire of photographing each time I visit the bookstore – and I've been coming to Seattle for more than 20 years. With over 120,000 titles to browse, and a spacious interior that includes original fir floors, a beamed ceiling with skylights, and an in-store café, Elliott Bay Book Company is always on our list of places to see – and to buy a book – when we visit our longtime Seattle friends.

Last Saturday, Independent Bookstore Day was celebrated across the United States. It brought to mind the many wonderful and unique independent bookstores I've visited over the years and willingly patronized. A few of them come to mind:

Book Passage in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Building; Mrs. Dalloway's Literary and Garden Arts in Berkeley; Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore.; Books & Books  in Coral Gables, Fla.; Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss.; Faulkner House Books on Pirate's Alley in New Orleans; Common Good Books in Saint Paul, Minn.; and my favorite, Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

Bought a good book lately? Remember: Support your local independent bookstore. READ!

Original fir floors, beamed ceilings, plenty of
 books inside Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle.

Tomes Not Drones / Timeless commentary
at Common Good Books, Saint Paul. 

Eat Sleep Read Dig / Window mantra
at Mrs. Dalloway's Literary & Garden Arts,
Berkeley, Calif.

We Recommend ... / Good books,
great atmosphere at Book Passage,
inside the Ferry Plaza Building,
along San Francisco's Embarcadero.

All photos: © Michael Dickens, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In our garden: Reflections on Earth Day 2016

Purple iris

Earth Day, a day that inspires awareness and appreciation of all the gifts earth and nature gives us, was observed worldwide on April 22.

It is often said that love begins in the home. And, so does our love for our planet earth. Last week, in preparation for Earth Day, I took advantage of our moderate temperatures that we who live in the San Francisco Bay Area enjoy throughout the year. The opportunity to be outside allowed me to spend some quality time in our garden.

As I looked around, I thought to myself: "If I love the earth, all will bloom naturally."

We are blessed to have nine different rose bushes as well as irises, calla lilies, fuchsias, rhododendrons and camellias surrounding our house. Indeed, we have an abundance of beautiful blooms throughout the entire year, especially during the month of April when all of them are in bloom at the same time. They get plenty of sunshine and clean air, and as we are aware that northern California is in a drought, we are mindful not to be careless in how much we water our flowers and plants.

And, so, in celebration of Earth Day, as I do so often throughout the year, I grabbed my camera and took lots of photographs, recording these colorful moments in our garden for others to appreciate and enjoy. Consider it  as my random act of kindness. 

May every day be like Earth Day to us.

Queen Elizabeth rose

All That Jazz rose

Purple rhododendron

Calla lily

Rainbow-colored rose

All photographs © Michael Dickens, 2016.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It was a memorable night for a "detour" with Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello / Pumping it up after all these years.

Elvis Costello is an extraordinary songwriter and performer. He's worked diligently at his craft for the past 40 years to attain a special place in the music world, listening to songs from many years ago to the latest hits. He's stayed relevant. Now, in his latest adventure, aptly called "Detour," Costello takes his audience on a musical journey through his vast songbook that's not only intimate and entertaining, but also humbling and inspiring. 

Elvis Costello / Performing "Watching the Detectives."
On March 30, at the Nob Hill Masonic in San Francisco, in just the second night of his current solo "Detour" tour – and in what was my 11th Costello adventure – I saw a show like no other he's given, and I've seen Elvis perform with his various backing bands, including the Attractions, the Imposters, and the Sugarcanes; in a duet show with his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve; accompanied by the extraordinary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint backed with a brass horn section – even dressed in black tuxedo performing with the San Francisco Symphony. 

Elvis Costello / Performing "Town Cryer."
Musically, throughout the two and a quarter-hour performance, which began in near darkness with "Complicated Shadows" and concluded with three encores – the first and third joined by twenty-something sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of the Georgia roots-rock duo Larkin Poe, whom added beautiful harmonies to classics such as "Blame It on Cain" – the 61-year-old, bespectacled Costello moved freely between a variety of acoustic and electric guitars lined up behind him and a baby grand piano off to the side, digging deep into his catalog to share his classics like "Accident Will Happen," "Watching the Detectives," "Alison," and "Pump It Up" as well as covers by Los Lobos ("A Matter of Time") and Bob Dylan ("Down on the Bottom"). There were also poignant renditions of some of my personal favorites, "Shipbuilding" and "Town Cryer," and his lovely rendition of "Ascension Day" was a fitting tribute to Toussaint, whom he collaborated with on the 2006 album The River in Reverse in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Elvis Costello / Joined by Larkin Poe during the first encore.
Conceptually, in "Detour," the rectangular stage was arranged to resemble a 1960s living room with its focal point being an oversized retro Lupe-O-Tone TV set that served as a delightful prop to show candid, never-before-seen black-and-white family photographs, portraits of personal heroes – including Toussaint and the Bay Area cowboy swing-bluesman Dan Hicks, both recently deceased – and a filmed performance of his father, the band leader Ross MacManus, enthusiastically singing the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays folk standard "If I Had a Hammer" with a Latin dance twist to it. Costello even climbed inside the TV set to perform "Alison" and "Pump It Up" during his second encore.

Elvis Costello / Sharing a conversation with his audience.
In between songs, Costello – ever the raconteur – showed why he's also a wonderful conversationalist and gifted storyteller, too. His acerbic banter and delightful repartee was evident as he shared with his audience many intimate stories and anecdotes about his music family – both his father and grandfather were professional musicians and inspired him – growing up in Liverpool at the same time that The Beatles were becoming international rock-and-roll superstars, the origins of his music, parenthood as a father to twin boys with his wife, jazz pianist Diana Krall, and life on the road, that were both revealing and humorous. There were funny reminisces about coming to play San Francisco for the first time in his early twenties back in the 1970s. Much of this was covered in detail in his recent 670-page memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, which showed Costello to be an intelligent, thoughtful, witty and lyrical writer. 

In explaining the name he picked for his current group of shows, "Detour," Costello deadpanned, "Where I come from, when people would ask 'Where are you going?' the answer was always 'We're going on de tour.'" It drew nice laughter from the sold-out audience.

Elvis Costello / Performing "Shipbuilding."
With a career spanning four decades – and a few detours along the way – Costello has morphed from "a snotty, defiant New Wave hell-raiser into a distinguished gentleman," wrote the Huffington Post. Now, ever the progressive thinker, mover and shaker, Costello does as he pleases, and these days he's place an emphasis on performing rather than recording. This has given him a chance to gain a new perspective and musical point of view in his celebrated repertoire and to share a nightly, intimate conversation with his audience. Always an in-touch tunesmith, it's reflected in rearranged renditions of many of his old songs, such as "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes", "(What's So funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," and the blistering guitar loop and distortion in "Watching the Detectives." Costello even found a place  – a detour – to cover a few Tin Pan Alley standards, such as the 1930's "Walking My Babe Back Home" (which he dedicated to Krall and his twin boys), his own introspective "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" (including a coda of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", which he sang un-miked and a capella) and a downbeat version of the 1927 classic "Side by Side."

"Oh, we don't know what's coming tomorrow / Maybe it trouble and sorrow / but we'll travel the road sharing our load / Side by side."

One of the many highlights for this most Baby Boomer crowd included Costello singing "Everyday I Write the Book," which he nicely wrapped into a lovely cover of Nick Lowe's "When I Write the Book."

"Now I can remember like it was only yesterday / Love was young and foolish like a little child at play / But, oh how lovers change, I never dreamed how easily / 'Cause now I'm just a shadow of the boy I used to be."

Elvis Costello / Biding his San Francisco audience good night.
On this memorable night of musical expression in San Francisco, Costello was as spontaneous as he was entertaining – his set list changes from night to night – and on this night he slipped in the Grateful Dead's "It Must Have Been the Roses" joined by Larkin Poe during one of the encores. It's easy to see why Costello is such a music fan and champions the works of others.

Elvis Costello's Nob Hill Masonic, San Francisco, set list:

Main set (solo): Complicated Shadows / Red Shoes / Hope You're Happy Now / Accidents Will Happen / Ascension Day / Church Underground / Radio Soul /Motel Matches / Matter of Time / Shipbuilding /When I Write the Book – Everyday I Write the Book / Walking My Baby Back Home / Ghost Train /Town Cryer / Watching the Detectives / It's Not My Time to Go.

First encore (with Larkin Poe): Pads, Paws, and Claws / Love Field /Blame It on Cain / That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving /Down on the Bottom.

Second encore (solo, performed inside TV set): Alison / Pump It Up.

Third encore (solo): Side By Side / Jimmie Standing in the Rain – Brother Can You Spare a Dime? / It Must Have Been the Roses (with Larkin Poe) / Peace, Love and Understanding (with Larkin Poe).

All photographs © Michael Dickens, 2016.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mississippi memo: You don't love your neighbor by discriminating against them

Mississippi / From Hospitality State to Hostility State, thanks to H.B. 1523.

Dear Mississippi,

In case you missed it we've already had this conversation. You don't get to decide who sits at the lunch counter.

Love, America

The above letter that's making the rounds on Facebook sums up a lot of common-sense feelings in just a few words. In a matter of days, Mississippi went from being the "Hospitality State" to the "Hostility State," thanks to the recent passing of a hateful and discriminatory measure (House Bill 1523) by the State Legislature.

Memo to Republican Governor Phil Bryant: "You don't love your neighbors by discriminating against them." Shame on you.

Mississippi / "You're on my mind ... "
Indeed, I've been saddened by the appalling news that my former home state of Mississippi (where I graduated from high school in the Gulf Coast city of Ocean Springs) last week passed legislation and the governor signed into law "The Religious Liberty Accommodations Act," which directly targets the LGBT community throughout the state – from Tupelo to Biloxi, from the Delta to the Gulf Coast and everywhere in between.  The bill is so draconian that the state's largest daily newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson called it "an act of oppression."

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, H.B. 1523 "would allow individuals, religious organizations and private associations to use religion to discriminate against LGBT Mississippians in some of the most important aspects of their lives, including at work, at schools, and in their communities."

In an April 6 editorial, The Clarion-Ledger wrote: "Through the swish of  pen, (Governor Phil) Bryant signed away the rights of families, ignored the pleas of residents and businesses, and wrote another page in the state's history that future generations will be shocked – even embarrassed – to read. With a final stroke of that pen, Mississippi welcomed its latest Jim Crow law and displayed a sign for the world to see: Welcome to Mississippi. No gays allowed. Mississippi and its citizens deserve better than this unconscionable law."

In no time at all, Mississippi became the butt of jokes nationwide, as evidenced by a satirical Mississippi Anti-LGBT video released by the comedy website Funny or Die, which has already received 50,000 views on YouTube:

According to an article in the South Mississippi Sun-Herald newspaper over the weekend, Gulf Coast mayors seemed unanimous in their stance against H.B. 1523, saying it didn't reflect the residents of their respective South Mississippi cities. Each worries about the negative publicity and potential economic fallout that might hit the Coast. (On Monday, rock singer Bryan Adams pulled out of a concert scheduled for Thursday in Biloxi to protest the signing of H.B. 1523.)

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran told the Sun-Herald she thought H.B. 1523 was unnecessary and bad legislation. "It is nothing more than codified discrimination," she said. "This just set us back to the 1960s. We're just moving from a sense of bigotry from race to sexual identity.

"Freedom of religious expression is every individual's right, but it has no place in government."

Memo to the Mississippi State Legislature and other supporters of H.B. 1523:  Folks, it's 2016 not 1966! Have you not learned from your past?

Fortunately, there's at least one voice of reason in Mississippi, despite all of the shambles happening at the state capitol. It belongs to independent bookseller Square Books, located on the town square in Oxford, the city which is home to the University of Mississippi. In business since 1979 – and widely known among readers as the hub of William Faulkner's "postage stamp of native soil," Yoknapatawpha – Square Books in its infancy hosted a variety of racially and culturally diverse authors including Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg and Alice Walker as well as Mississippians John Grisham, Richard Ford and Willie Morris.

Over the weekend on their Facebook page, the owners of Square Books posted a message that read: "In the wake of HB-1523, we at Square Books want to make sure you know that you are welcome here. Always. 'If you are anyone, from anywhere, we hope you will visit us, and we hope you may find something you would like to read.'"

Square Books gets it – that H.B. 1523 needs to be repealed. Now, let's hope that the state's governor and legislature get it, too. Sooner than later.

As Rev. Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest and activist from Pasadena, Calif., recently wrote on Huffington Post, "Let's get back to work making this a country where the pledge of 'liberty and justice for all' doesn't depend on your zip code. It's what we're all called to do."


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Baseball haiku: Play Ball!

Posey's at the plate / Panik's on the run from first /
Belt awaits his turn.

Celebrating Major League Baseball's 
2016 Opening Week
with a series of haiku poems:

Fathers playing catch /
 Tossing the ball back and forth /
With their sons, all's well. 
Peanuts! Cracker Jacks!
The smell of fresh-cut green grass.
Batter up! Play ball!

The crack of the bat ...
Pence looks up to the night sky.
Catches the full moon.

Baseball on the air,
Nine innings of word pictures.
A hungry mind smiles.

Always playing, Pence /
We believe in Hunter Pence /
Pence, always cheerful.
Now pitching: Matt Cain.
Twenty-seven up, all outs.
Matt Cain: A perfect game.

Seventh inning stretch,
We stand, stretch, and sing: Take me
Out to the ball game ...

Long fly ball hit deep,
The crowd rises together ...
"It is OUT-TA here!"

Strike three called; game's over.
Giants win, the Giants win!
Life's good. Let's get even!

Photographs: All photos by Michael Dickens ©2016.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Oscar de la Renta: Celebrating a global fashion icon

Oscar de la Renta / The Dominican-born
American designer celebrated the best in us.
"Beauty, optimism, confidence." Three words that define how Dominican-born American designer Oscar de la Renta celebrated the best in us through his remarkable and colorful fashion. De la Renta (1932-2014) dressed women for modern life, and he was one of the most beloved and influential fashion icons whose career spanned both the 20th and 21st centuries. 

De la Renta's knowledge of literature, art, music and social history influenced his fashion design, and "his work was admired for its contemporary sensibility, romantic artistry, and traditional workmanship." 

His fashion has been worn by distinguished women and celebrities, including First Ladies Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, and singer Rihanna.

Oscar de la Renta / He was deeply
influenced by the people, history and
customs of Spain.
Last week, I had the opportunity to see a world-premiere retrospective of de la Renta's designs with my wife that opened less than two weeks ago at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. "This is the first major survey to celebrate the life and career of one of fashion's most influential designers, examining his craft and technique, the historical and cultural influences on his work, and the clients who wore his designs," according to Fine Arts magazine.

The colorful exhibition included more than 130 ensembles spanning de la Renta's remarkable career, beginning in Spain where he first gained his initial commissions to his formative years that were spent in some of the world's most famous and iconic European fashion houses, and finally to his role as a designer for many influential and celebrated personalities. 

Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain
Evening ensemble; coat and pants,
Spring/summer, 2000.
"Today, people – clothes – are international. Frontiers are non-existent," de la Renta once said. He broke a barrier in becoming the first American designer to head a French couture house when he joined Pierre Balmain.

André Leon Talley, former American Vogue editor-at-large and the exhibition's curator, said of the iconic designer: "Oscar carried with him the warmth of paradise, surely drawn from the sheer happiness of his childhood, growing up in a tropical environment in a huge family, surrounded by love." 

Throughout the 1970s, Oscar de la Renta's
collections included his hallmark sophisticated
take on daywear.
Further, Talley said: "Throughout his life, there was always love and laughter and it infused everything he took to task, be it the designing a simple cashmere coat, a suit, or a gorgeous evening dress; preparing a lovely dinner party; or tending to his gardens. Oscar loved life, and the light from within him beamed out to his world."

It became clear to me as I walked through the exhibit rooms that de la Renta's designs were full of beauty and color, and filled with elegance. It is evident that he had a true desire to make all of his women look and feel beautiful.

The special exhibition celebrating the fashion of Oscar de la Renta continues through May 30 in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries at the de Young. 

If your travels bring you to the San Francisco Bay Area between now and the end of May, I highly recommend you treat yourself and see this enjoyable exhibition – and bring your camera along to take photographs as non-flash photography is allowed in this exhibition.

Learn more about the Oscar de la Renta exhibition:

Photos: Oscar de la Renta courtesy of Fine Arts magazine and FAMSF. Exhibition photographs by Michael Dickens, © 2016.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Exploring my options: A good job is ... (fill in the blank)

Your's truly sporting the familiar red
SpoonRocket t-shirt.
A good job is more than just a paycheck, it's been said. Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life. Sometimes, however, unfortunate circumstances prevent us from being able to maintain a good "working" thing.

At 9:12 a.m. last Tuesday morning, the e-mail which would decide my immediate employment future arrived in my Hotmail inbox. I was unaware of it or its contents until nearly two hours after it was sent because I was busy mentoring a group of seventh-grade students at my volunteer "job" as a WriterCoach Connection tutor in Berkeley, and my iPhone was stored in my backpack so as to not distract me or my students.

After arriving at my parked car outside Longfellow Middle School, I paused for a moment and opened the e-mail from my employer, SpoonRocket, the Berkeley-based on-demand food delivery service that was started with much fanfare in 2013 by a couple of entrepreneurial University of California graduates, enterprising engineering major Anson Tsui and social engineering major Steven Hsiao.

The e-mail began:

"SpoonRocket will cease all our operations effective immediately. We set out to build the next generation of food delivery network and we are proud of what we were able to achieve in a short period of time. However, as competition for on-demand food delivery has grown, it became clear that  we could not continue to compete. Over the last few months, we've been exploring our next options and unfortunately came up short. ...

"Thank you for being amazing ambassadors for the SpoonRocket brand. Good luck with all your future endeavors."


The SpoonRocket Team

SpoonRocket debuted in 2013 with $13.5 million raised
in venture capital funding.
Just like that, I found myself newly unemployed. While it's easy enough to say I was surprised, the folding of the start-up tech company I had come to enjoy while being an "amazing ambassador" came as a bit of a shock. In the 19 months I worked for SpoonRocket, we delivered a pretty amazing brand of product – fresh and healthy meals created by our own group of talented chefs and cooked in our own kitchens.

Menu choices ranged from smoked gouda mac and cheese with pulled pork to Thai red curry chicken to grilled tri-tip steak salads, most priced under $10. Each day our customers could choose from 4-5 different hot meal options and from 7-9 cold items (salads, sandwiches, desserts, beverages) using the SpoonRocket app downloaded on their Android or iOS smartphone, or by ordering online through the company's website, and expect delivery to their home or office within 10-15 minutes – often faster if a driver was nearby, sometimes slower if a popular choice created greater demand than expected.

Customers prepaid for their orders – which meant no money exchanged hands – and they met their driver at the curb of their home or business address to receive their food and drink which was maintained by the driver in hot and cold bags, respectively. I never had to leave my car except to return to our University Avenue distribution center in Berkeley to reload my bags.

As a SpoonRocket driver, I earned a flat fee for each lunch delivery I successfully completed plus all tips from the customers whose meals I delivered. A typical three-hour, mid-day lunch shift for me might include delivery of hot and cold meals throughout various Berkeley neighborhoods, as well as in Emeryville, Oakland and West Oakland. Sometimes, I even ventured into Albany, El Cerrito, and Piedmont. I usually logged about 30-40 miles per shift. I loved delivering in Emeryville because I knew the city's street grid like the back of my hand – my wife works in Emeryville for a library software company – and the tech workers there tipped well, too. On a good day, I could make upwards of $30 per hour. On a slow day, it was still about $20 an hour. As a contractor, my schedule was flexible. I didn't have to work nights or weekends, but many of my co-workers chose to as well as to work multiple shifts each day. Whether by necessity or not, I never asked.

My 2013 Toyota Camry was my "office" on wheels.
My 2013 Toyota Camry with the easily-recognized red SpoonRocket flags attached to my car's back windows, was my office. My SpoonRocket driver's app directed me to whom and where to deliver orders, and my Waze GPS ensured that I never got lost driving from Point A to Point B. My customer base was friendly towards me and always appreciative when I pulled up to the curb with their deliveries, especially on rainy days. Honestly, I can't remember every delivering to an angry "SpoonRocketer." In fact, most complimented me on my friendly demeanor and professionalism, and many took the time to ask me how my day was going. Some even sought menu recommendations from me. Because most of my customers were repeat ones, it became easy to be on a first-name basis with many of them. I only wish I had the time to thank all of them personally.

Unfortunately, as innovative tech giants like Uber have continued to grow and expand and thrive (now with UberEats) – and Silicon Valley venture capital has thinned in recent months – even the San Francisco Bay Area isn't immune to tech fallout.  There's only so many ways to re-engineer the on-demand meal delivery wheel and be cash-flow positive without pricing yourself out of the range of your mainstream customers. It's unfortunate because on-demand early adopters such as SpoonRocket, which debuted with $13.5 million raised in venture capital funding, have suddenly found themselves edged out by more recent or newer start-ups like Sprig, Munchery, and Caviar, with deeper financial pockets.

Fortunately, the overall employment outlook out here appears good and I view my new-found unemployment with optimism. There's no time to dwell on the negative. I have already been contacted by some rival on-demand delivery companies to consider coming to work for them. For now, I have an opportunity to regroup and brush up on my skills – update my resumé and hopefully network with professionals – and, who knows, maybe even reinvent myself. I love to write, I love to learn, and I love to interact with others. Plus, I excel both independently and as a team player. While I'm not sure what the future holds for me, I look forward to the journey that lies ahead.

Photos: © Michael Dickens, 2015. SpoonRocket logo courtesy of SpoonRocket Facebook page.